Positive feedback loops in running

Positive feedback loops in running


To smile is to “have or take on a facial expression showing pleasure, amusement, affection, or friendliness, and characterized by an upward curving of the corners of the mouth and a sparkling of the eyes”. How often do you smile while running? Does running make you smile more or less?

Let’s start with a lesson from Eliud Kipchoge, the best marathoner in the world. Here is what a recent New York Times article recounts about his habit of smiling when he begins to feel pain in a race:

”Kipchoge has a habit of smiling whenever pain sets it. Pain, he said, is nothing more than a mind-set. So he distracts himself with other thoughts — the joy of running, the finish line ahead. Then the pain fades. In the process, he has proved himself singularly capable of elevating the sport into something that more closely resembles performance art.”

He did this when he set the marathon world record this past year in Berlin, and he did it when he ran 2:00:25 in Nike’s Breaking2 attempt.

I don’t think this is just a cheap trick for Kipchoge. The man exudes positivity in his life, not just while running. Check out this quote from his 2018 Oxford Address.

“In any profession, you should think positively. That’s the driver of your mind. If your mind is really thinking positive then you are on the right track. ‘Pleasure in what you’re doing puts perfection in your work.’ That was a quote by Aristotle.”

This edition of the Run Express explores how smiling and positive emotions improve our running. And I believe the opposite is true as well: Running can create more joy and positivity in our life.

Quick Note: I’m not a fan of “you just need to be happy” advice. Real life requires us to go through a whole range of emotions on a regular basis — the ups and the downs. But I think some of the research on emotions and performance is really interesting. And I also think running is a whole lot more enjoyable when we lighten up a bit and approach it with a positive mindset.

The Hartshorne Mile — Part I

As I walked into Barton Hall at Cornell University this past weekend it was hard not to be overtaken by the atmosphere of the old 100-yr+ building filled with a combination of young collegiate athletes and young-at-heart masters runners. It is home to the Hartshorne Mile, a track meet that has been contested for 50 years and draws 40-90 yr. old athletes from all over the East, Mid-West, Canada, and sometimes beyond—many making the journey to Ithaca, NY year-after-year.

In my first year of competition, I approached the competitive arena with some trepidation. I hadn’t raced a mile on the track in over 20 years, and I was up against some great competitors. The four-hour drive home and threat of a major snow and ice storm had me a little worried as well. In other words, I was anxious, and a little scared. But within 30 minutes of entering Barton Hall, my mood turned toward warmth, excitement, and relaxation. I have to give credit for this emotional flip-flop to the people around me. The check-in clerk greeted me with a smile and enthusiasm. Meet director Adam Engst gave me a moment of full joyful attention amidst his ongoing track meet. Competitors caught up with each other like they were old friends (which I’m pretty sure they were) and openly welcomed newcomers like myself. My Greater Philadelphia Track Club teammates joked and laughed. Even the rabbit for our race (yes, we had a rabbit) was enthusiastic and uplifting.

This made all the difference. By the time I began warming up, I was all smiles. More on this story later.

It turns out that our mood has a profound effect on our running, our perception of effort, our efficiency, and ultimately our performance. There’s real science that links positive emotion and good mood to better performance.

The science

Several recent studies have looked at the impact of mood, emotions, and brain chemistry on performance. One of the most straight forward comes from the Noel Brick and his colleagues at Ulster University. They measured the running economy of 24 runners in a series of four six-minute runs. They also measured perceptual outcomes, like effort. The runners were instructed to smile, frown, relax their hands and upper body, or just think their usual thoughts. The results supported the benefits of smiling. Running economy was a little more than 2 percent better when smiling. That may not sound like much but it’s on par with the effect many runners spend months and months of steady training to achieve.

This research spurred Runner’s World to write an article titled This is why Kipchoge smiles when he runs (and why you should be doing it too). The bottom line is that training your facial muscles to lighten up can boost your performance.

This comes on the heels of a series of influential studies by Samuele Marcora, a researcher at the University of Kent, showing that you can make a reasonable estimate of effort by measuring the activation of smiling or frowning muscles in the face. Based on the “facial feedback hypothesis,” Marcora proposes that the relationship might also work in the opposite direction: A hard effort makes you frown, and, conversely, frowning makes an effort feel harder—and smiling might make it feel easier.

As the relationship between emotions and performance become more clear, researchers keep finding more mechanisms that link brain chemistry into the positive and negative aspects of run performance. Research from the University of Montreal links “runners high” with dopamine. The Guardian’s article, What does running do to your brain?, discusses several studies that show how running and emotions are linked to dulling pain, raising spirits, and reducing anxiety. The British Psychological Society reports on 10 Ways That Running Changes Your Mind and Brain. They are all good.

And links between emotions and performance seem to keep coming. Alex Hutchinson’s Sweat Science column this past week discusses research on how our brain chemistry may start dulling pain and boosting mood before we go for a run — before we even take a step! The results, published this month in Behavioral Brain Research, suggest that the mere anticipation of going for a run changes how we feel and how the brain processes pain. These changes are more pronounced the more we run.

That’s the positive side. Anticipation can have the opposite effect if you fear that which lies in your future — like a big hill or hard race. Scott Douglas does a good job summarizing more research from Noel Brick. The gist is that performance suffers when we worry about a hard hill, or hard effort, before we get to it. We’re better off not knowing about it and just taking it as it comes. But I don’t think we should interpret this as “ignorance is bliss.” We just need to find ways to refocus our minds to dial down fear and amp up positive emotions.

So, what can we do about all this?

There’s a lot you can do

It seems to me like there is a reciprocal relationship between running and emotions going on here (acted out by brain and body chemistry). Positive emotions help us perform better while running. Running helps us have more positive emotions. There is a potential positive feedback loop we can tap into.

This topic goes too deep to explore fully in this newsletter, but I believe there are many ways to tap into the positive feedback loop.

A great resource to pick up on the topic, if interested, is the recently published book The Happy Runner: Love the Process, Get Faster, Run Longer by David and Megan Roche. I was initially skeptical of the title. I expected it to be shallow, filled with obvious advice, and full of cute stories about happy runners. I picked it up anyway as part of my research on the Expressive Runner course, and my first reactions were wrong. It is well written and goes deep into mental approaches to running (and life) that allow us to both enjoy and perform. The book talks a lot about our fragility, our impending death, and the internal demons that most of us have to face. Learning to deal with these things can be the key to unlocking a better mindset. Here is a quote from the book.

“Zooming out can bring some clarity about what really matters to you, and what brings you joy. Because if you don’t zoom out now, a running life will do it for you when you least expect it. Whether it’s slowing down with age, getting injured, or simply hitting the wall in a race or training run, being a lifelong runner means making friends with your own fragility.”

I’ll skip further advice on this topic in hopes that the information so far will make you curious enough to explore ways to tap into the positive feedback loop of running and emotions. We’ll end with the conclusion of my Hartshorne Mile story.

The Hartshorne Mile — Part II

As mentioned above, the environment in Barton Hall shifted my mental state away from anxiety and fear toward enthusiasm and excitement. It was subtle but powerful. I enjoyed cheering heats of competitors, including my teammates, as they raced around the 200 meter indoor track (one mile = 8 laps + 9 meters = 1609 meters). My heat was last and I arrived on the starting line fired up. I gave a fist bump to every competitor — something I’ve never done before. The announcer completed his introductions and the gun went off.

I immediately settled behind previous champion (and super-nice guy) Mark Williams as we both followed the rabbit through the first 400 meters in exactly the time we told him to run (67 seconds). I felt relaxed and confident. We drifted a couple seconds off the rabbit in the next 400 meters. As we approached the 800 meter mark (half way), I had to decide if I should take the lead and try to push the pace for a fast time or sit on Mark a bit longer and go for the win towards the end of the race. You can watch the race on YouTube if you want. It only lasts a little more than 4.5 minutes.


Or maybe you just skip that and get to the conclusion. I took the lead and held on for the win in 4:34:80.

I’m happy with the performance and feel like I grew as an athlete. Growth is a big deal for me. It’s a huge driver of “why” I run, coach, and perform. The performance at Ithaca taught me about the power of a positive mindset, it taught me to reframe anxiety as excitement, and it reinforced that we are all in this together to make each other better. It also helped me learn that I still have some work to do to reach my full potential in the mile race. I could have pushed harder the second half of race, and I think I can break 4:30 with a little more training and practice.

Perhaps even better than the performance and positive vibes at the race is the ongoing connection with athletes that continues to this day. Thanks to facebook, email, and Strava, I’ve communicated with dozens of athletes in the last few days (most of whom I’ve never met). This dialogue and connection has opened up new opportunities for me, which have in turn brought more joy and satisfaction to my life.

This is the reciprocal relationship between emotions and running that I tried to convey previously. This is the positive feedback loop. I really hope we can all experience this more often in our lives. I don’t have a proven playbook at this time, but I think the first step is opening yourself up to the possibility. Not far behind is seizing the opportunities.

Learn more

This is where I’ll toot my own horn. I’ll be speaking at the Chester Country Running Store in Pottstown on February 6th at 7pm. It is free and should be a lot of fun. There is a good chance this topic will come up.

I’m also working in a lesson related to this in the free Expressive Athlete eCourse. Sign up if you here if you want to give it a go.

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